TOPEKA — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly gave Kansas' top economic development official a second job as the state's next lieutenant governor, and the state Republican Party immediately previewed possible attacks against their ticket in the 2022 elections.
Kelly named state Commerce Secretary David Toland to replace Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers, who is stepping down Jan. 2 to fill a vacancy in the state treasurer’s office. Toland has been commerce secretary since Kelly took office in January 2019 and last year won a contentious battle over his confirmation by the Republican-dominated state Senate that included opposition from the state’s most politically influential anti-abortion group.
Toland, 43, ran a nonprofit economic development group in Allen County in southeast Kansas for 11 years before becoming state commerce secretary. He also served as the treasurer for Kelly’s successful 2018 campaign for governor.
In addition to having political fundraising chops, Toland is highly regarded by some business leaders and local economic development officials, something that could help Kelly with the moderate Republican and independent voters in seeking a second term. Appointing Toland as lieutenant governor also could help set him up for a future run for governor — or in 2022, if Kelly decides not to run again.
Kelly brushed aside questions about her political plans, saying during a Statehouse news conference that she isn’t focused on such questions during the coronavirus pandemic and with the GOP-controlled Legislature set to reconvene in January.
"You all — and others — are going to speculate all you want, and there’s nothing I can say that will stop that speculation," she said. "It is always who is absolutely the most qualified for the position, and that’s what David Toland is."
It’s not been unusual in recent decades for the lieutenant governor to have a position in the governor’s Cabinet. Gary Sherrer, lieutenant governor with GOP Gov. Bill Graves from 1996 through 2002, also was commerce secretary.
The governor’s choice for lieutenant governor is not subject to legislative oversight. Candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run for election on a single ticket.
Kelly’s office released testimonials for Toland from 18 people, including business executives, local chamber of commerce leaders and former Democratic Gov. John Carlin. Toland credited the Kelly administration with attracting $2.4 billion in new business investment this year alone.
"We have a new way of doing business in Kansas, and it’s working," he told reporters.
But Republicans are painting a different picture of the state’s economy, arguing restrictions Kelly imposed this spring to check the spread of the coronavirus across the state were too harsh and hurt the economy too much.
State GOP Chairman Mike Kuckelman also revived criticism of Toland from last year over grants received by Thrive Allen County in 2015 and 2018, totaling less than $20,000, to promote women’s health. The grants were from a fund named for the late Dr. George Tiller, who performed late-term abortions in Wichita and who was murdered by an anti-abortion zealot in 2009.
The anti-abortion group Kansans for Life pushed unsuccessfully for the Senate to reject Toland’s appointment as commerce secretary and force to step down. The state GOP sent out a fundraising email Monday calling Toland a "radical liberal."
Kuckelman also noted that Republicans retained supermajorities in both legislative chambers in this year’s elections, adding, "Governor Kelly’s liberal agenda is dead on arrival for the remainder of her term."
Kelly announced last week that Rogers, the current lieutenant governor, would become state treasurer. He will replace Republican Jake LaTurner, who won the eastern Kansas seat in the U.S. House in November.